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How The Civil War Changed National Identity Forever

The Civil War forever changed how Americans view their national identity.

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By Willie Johnson | United States

At few other times in history were the hearts and minds of Americans filled with so much fervor than the dawn of the American Civil War. Men from across the nation rallied to the cause of the North or South with passion that carried them into the jaws of death for four long years, fiercely loyal to the decision of their home states to either remain a part of the Union or to leave it. Although this allegiance was often reluctant, men on both sides usually put aside their personal opinions to defend their homes regardless of the larger cause―something that would never happen today.

Today, citizens of the United States refer to themselves as “Americans.” One people, united by a bond of a national identity made possible not only by modern travel and communication, but also by shared trials and tribulations throughout history. Before such circumstances as a depression or World War could bring us together, however, we more closely resembled an amalgamation of small, loosely organized countries. As a young nation defined first by colonies and then states, a resident of the Carolinas, for example, would refer to himself or herself as a Carolinian first, and an American second.

In a time when the bounds of technology limited the ability of any government to effectively rule large amounts of territory, the regional governments of states (and even counties, to some extent) played a much larger role in the lives of citizens than the federal government ever did.  This created a perfect storm for civil war, however, as the regional differences intensified by this form of rule allowed for a gap between north and south to grow ever wider in the Antebellum period. When the question of secession finally arose, it was these states and counties that shaped the opposing sides. The counties of Kentucky, for example, contained split allegiances, and the state fielded both Union and Confederate troops as a result.

The fact is, if you were a white male between the ages of seventeen and forty in 1861, you would most likely join your friends and neighbors to fight for the State in which you were born. Your loyalty to your State Government, already largely independent from Washington, would supersede your loyalty to the United States as a whole. You would take up arms under the impression that you were doing so in defense of what was best for your state and its citizens. That isn’t to say that people did not see the larger cause, though; references to “defending the South” or “preserving the Union” are not uncommon in original letters from the highest ranking generals to the lowliest of foot soldiers.

In a letter to his children penned soon after leaving to join the Confederate Army, Lieutenant Samuel J. C. Moore of the Second Virginia Infantry perfectly expressed the reasons for his sacrifice. In it, he emphasized an attitude of state loyalty common among soldiers of both sides, and like many southerners, claimed to be defending his home from an invader:

“Do you know for what your Papa has left his family and his home and his office and his business? I will tell you. The State of Virginia called for all the men who are young and able to carry arms, to defend her against Lincoln’s armies, and it is the duty, I think, of every man to answer her call, and be ready to keep the army of our enemies from ever setting their feet in the state.”

Moore was simply one among millions of enthusiastic volunteers on both sides who understood exactly what was on the line. Before the war was over, his native Shenandoah Valley would be in ruins like so many other parts of the country, but not in vain. The country needed the most bitter of conflicts to become more unified and successful than ever before. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the nation rose to enter the industrial era as a world superpower. Although much progress was still on the way, the final result of the Civil War set the stage for the modern day.

Perhaps now more than ever, it is important to learn from history. It, unfortunately, took the deaths of over 600,000 men to change the way Americans thought of their identity, but that sacrifice ensured that America would never be the same. The Civil War achieved many other essential accomplishments, but its effect upon our idea of unity cannot be overstated. We went from the United States of America to the United States of America… a simple distinction forged in bloodshed.

 


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